The First President Captured on Film: McKinley’s 1896 Campaign Song & Commercial


William McKinley is often seen as an important transitional President – at least to those interested in studying some of the real stories behind the headline version of history.

McKinley and Roosevelt campaign poster.

It’s true he didn’t have the charisma or excitable speaking style of his immediate successor Theodore Roosevelt, who became President when McKinley was assassinated in September 1901.

And while he can’t be credited for the coincidental timing of leading the nation out of the 19th century into the 20th century any more than John Adams can be for doing the same thing a century before or Bill Clinton doing likewise a century later, he did break some precedents and make some important change.

McKinley is depicted as watching the peace treaty with Spain being signed in a massive canvas now in the White House Collection.

Most importantly, McKinley’s reluctant declaration of war against Spain in 1898, leading the United States to Cuba and the Philippines and his controversial decision to make the latter nation an American colony thrust the U.S. onto the world stage as an important leader.

It was the new empire on the globe, with the Spanish Empire faded and the British Empire on its way out. He also brought order to the way the executive branch operated – just in time for the first West Wing, which Roosevelt built.

A speaker’s platform and stand was constructed away from the McKinley front porch for the candidate to address crowds – and save the house.

He was also probably the first presidential candidate to offer supporters the most prolific range of campaign songs to sing while they waited for him to come out and speak to them on his front-porch at his rented home in Canton, Ohio (he bought the same house and used it again for his 1900 re-election campaign there).  There were gloomy ballads, operatic pieces that seemed impossible to harmonize for large groups, and others with catchy tunes and witty lyrics. One of the more high-stepping ones, Hooray For Bill McKinley, is the one accompanying the brief video below – but the film itself, though not wildly exciting, may be of more importance. It’s the first one to capture a President or would-be President in motion.

It really might be called the first campaign commercial. Here it is:

Shown walking across his front lawn , McKinley was rather reluctant, even a bit bewildered by the whole process.

Brother Ab.

He was coaxed into doing it by his brother Abner McKinley, one of those classic get-rich-quick fellows always with a new scheme for making money and a propensity for getting free railroad passes. Abner was an investor in one of the very first “moving picture” companies and he felt sure that getting his brother as one of the subjects would boost interest in the new technology.

A frame of another, later movie showing President McKinley.

The premise of the short film was to show McKinley casually accept a note from the companion he’s seen walking with. It’s the message that he’s been nominated by Republicans for the presidency. He tips his top hat over his forehead, affixes his pince-nez, casually reads the note and then goes on his way out of the frame.

Not very scintillating but historical none the less.

And it certainly didn’t hurt. He won the election.

Categories: Advertising & Marketing, Bill Clinton, History, John Adams, Politics, Pop Culture, Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley

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2 replies »

  1. Of course there’s usually something quite eerie about these very early moving pictures in which the illustrious subjects seem literally suspended in slow-motion, as if time itself had to relent in its pace to catch them before they vanished forever. McKinley seems to waft languidly onto my computer screen with a lazy breeze. Kind of a relief, actually, from the glitzy rock-star presidential happenings we’ve become used to over the past few decades. If only TR had lived today, what couldn’t he have done!

    • Wow – how vividly and perfectly described – I felt the same way when I first saw the brief clip, but you captured exactly the sensation it does in fact cause. I can’t help but think part of that is due to how our brains have all been conditioned by the tech advances in film and video – and how it has altered our perceptions of sight and movement. Thank you very much for the observation.


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